On a personal level, Alex Caruso was glad to see Paul George return to the Los Angeles Clippers’ lineup on Tuesday after losing three months to a torn UCL in his right elbow.
Caruso has been sidelined plenty this season with foot, hamstring and wrist injuries — plus a bout with COVID-19 — so he knows well how difficult it can be to spend extended time away from the court.
But as a competitor, the Chicago Bulls guard placed his tongue in cheek when addressing the challenge George will pose when their teams square off at the United Center on Thursday.
“We wish he would've waited two more games (to come back),” Caruso cracked after morning shootaround.
Indeed, George hit the ground running in his return to the lineup, scoring 34 points and draining six of nine 3-point attempts as the Clippers engineered a 25-point second-half comeback against the Jazz, their NBA-leading fifth 20-point comeback of the season. In his first action since Dec. 22, George looked every bit the two-way star he’s been for the last decade.
But the Bulls on Thursday will hope to replicate the success they had slowing him in these teams’ first matchup of the season on Nov. 14 in Los Angeles. That night, George shot 7-for-25 from the field as the Bulls held the Clippers to 90 points on 35.8 percent shooting in a 10-point win.
“I think he (George) missed a couple open ones if I remember. That always helps your night,” Caruso noted. “Guys that are his caliber, All-Star, All-NBA guys, any given night they could get hot, go off for a good game. So [we just need to bring] consistent effort. Making sure we throw multiple bodies at him, give him different looks.”
There's truth to that, and the humility is well-taken. But it also diverts some credit from the fine defensive job he, Lonzo Ball and Javonte Green did harrying George. Every pull-up jumper was well-contested, every dive to the rim met with waves of bodies.
Caruso started that contest, which the Bulls played without Nikola Vučević, and collected three steals and a block while holding George to 4-for-11 shooting in minutes matched with him, according to NBA.com tracking data. Even after picking up his fourth personal foul early in the third quarter, Caruso’s on-ball defense was stout, and his help coverage was all-encompassing, adding up to one of his most impactful defensive performances of the campaign.
Expect him to man the George assignment early and often on Thursday as well, especially with Ball out. But even a repeat of his outing on Nov. 14, Caruso acknowledged, provides no guarantees against an on- and off-ball scorer of George’s caliber. It will need to be a collective effort.
“I have teammates that are in coverages that are gonna help me out, coaches with good schemes. I can do as much work and homework and due diligence as I want. But at the end of the day I gotta go out there and compete with him,” Caruso said. “And then hopefully some of the guys will help me out (when needed).”
The Bulls begin a five-game homestand with the Clippers contest, and it's well-timed, given the dogged fight for seeding in the middle of the East down the stretch. The Bulls own a 26-10 record at the United Center this season, compared to 18-22 on the road, and enter play tied by record with the Raptors for fifth in the conference — two games above the play-in, and 2.5 games below the fourth seed, which would grant homecourt advantage in a first-round series.
“It's gotta be high,” Caruso said of the team’s urgency level. “Any team that's playing in the postseason has to have a high sense of urgency at this point in the year. It's just about us going out there and trying to fine-tune some stuff, work on some different defensive coverages we might try in the playoffs, stuff like that. Overall, I think it's just about sharpening us.”
A sharp night at the office against George and the Clippers would provide a good jumping-off point.